Book excerpt: Skills coach Darryl Belfry on finding the right drill for elite talent

Belfry Hockey

This excerpt from Belfry Hockey: Strategies to Teach the World’s Best Athletes by Darryl Belfry with Scott Powers is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, or www.triumphbooks.com/BelfryHockey. 

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The last five or six years, I started really moving through the teaching roles. I really felt like that was a critical component. At first you’re the director, then you’re the collaborator, then the facilitator, and, ultimately, the co-teacher. I wanted to set up my drills to mirror these teaching roles. I was progressing the kids not only through the content, but through the relationship with me and their reliance on me as the teacher. We’d gradually move toward teaching each other. That’s ultimately where I want to end up on different skills. The next parallel I was always trying to match was that the drill structure had to have a lot of variability and a lot of opportunity for me to be able to pivot for different reasons. 

To start off, everything was way easier for me when I understood game situations. That was the best part of Brantford, because whenever I would ask the coach what his challenges were and what the team was doing well, he would always relate it to the game. In these games, our kids don’t protect the puck well enough, so we’re on defense all the time or we get into good areas and our kids just don’t shoot the puck well enough. It takes us a lot of time to score. What do you got for scoring, Darryl? We have a hard time getting out of our own end. We get pinned in. We’re very susceptible to an aggressive pinch. We can’t problem-solve the pinch. Our wingers just aren’t strong enough. What can we do with that off the forecheck? We pride ourselves on having a strong retrieval game, and we don’t forecheck. We don’t get in on it fast enough, our support is too late. F2 is nowhere to be found even if we do get the puck stop. We’re susceptible to a team that that uses their D partners. Whenever they go D to D, we really struggle with rotation. We need to work on rotations. These were all the variables that could happen in just one night. 

I was always trying to figure out, Well, what is this game situation, what would that look like at this particular level, where else could this type of thing be used? If it’s puck protection, we could do that everywhere. I could do that in the defensive zone, in the neutral zone, in the offensive zone, off the rush, in small space. There are lots of things I could do with that. Then I could start to pinpoint the undercurrents here. What’s the underlying message that we want the coaches talking about? Forechecking, well, the premise behind forechecking is pursuit and angle, so we’re going to focus on those two things. That’s going to be an undercurrent. That’s going to run all the way through. Puck protection, well, that’s body position and puck placement, so that’s important. A little bit of awareness, maybe some reverse hits, we could put all that into it. The team doesn’t pass well enough, so there’s timing, puck support, passing technique. We can have that as the undercurrent. There’s also pass receiving. Maybe the passer is okay, but the pass receiver doesn’t take good angles to support the puck or doesn’t understand the casting component of being able to use their stick to soften the catch. Maybe there’s just a whole availability situation in that the younger they are, the less understanding of movement off the puck they have. Maybe there’s a real value in what we could do off the puck. 

Then, what are the key details? I understand the skills I want to do, but what are the details inside of it? What about angling? Well, there’s stick position, there’s the actual angle that we take. How can we elongate the contact opportunity here? What can we do with our stick? What can we do on the takeaway? What are the details with this whether we stick lift or stick slap or stick press? How are we doing this takeaway? What are the escape routes inside of that? Maybe there are two people coming; what’s the interaction between those two? How are they reading off of each other? Is there a way to simplify it? Could we go old-school where you have the rabbit, the hound, and the fox? The rabbit is the guy with the puck who’s trying to get away, the hound’s pressuring, and the fox is reading the play and trying to anticipate and time his support. Is there a way to articulate the rules to these players in a way they can understand? What are the details? How can I communicate those details? 

When I was in Brantford, I never got into parallel structures. I wasn’t that far in my personal development. It hadn’t revealed itself to me up to that point. It was a big enough bite just to understand how to set up and run the sheet and be able to hit the target areas and still pass the sweat test. Later on, I started understanding parallel structures and that became a big part of some of the questions. Like, can I do two things at once? Do I need to run them opposite of each other, or can I run them together where it’s a sequence and we’re building two different things, but they’re expressed together with good shouldering? Where could I build the peaks? 

Sometimes I did go on drill runs where I’d have three or four drills. Usually the coach would ask for two different things, so I would teach two different things. It was rare for those things to go hand-in-hand. It was usually like, We struggle on the breakout and we have problems on the penalty kill, so I would be doing things that were breakout-oriented for a drill run and then we would pivot and work on the penalty kill concepts. But how do I build the peaks? I needed to have the energy spike at different times to keep things hopping and popping for a little bit, at least, without getting so slow where it’s too teaching-oriented and the kids leave the ice without passing the sweat test. Now everybody is unhappy.

Darryl Belfry

I also had to determine who the top players were. This was something I carried over from my Nathan Horton days, understanding who the top player is and what top players’ assets are. Is it just one guy, or could it be two or three? What are their assets? That would allow me to understand which kid we could start zeroing in on to push the whole thing along. Then, ultimately, I focused on relationship building, making it fun and creating a real connection inside the teaching, where I was relied upon. 

In the early days, I wanted to be relied upon. I wanted all eyes on me. I wanted the respect from the group, from the coach. I wanted him to respect what I was doing and be like, “Wow, that was awesome.” I needed all of those kind of affirmations. That was all relationship building and how I was moving the group through and what kind of a handle the coach had on his own group. Whenever I was there, I wanted to be the best ice they had. It had to be significantly better than what the coach was capable of doing on his own, which was tough, because there were some outstanding coaches who had been coaching for years and years and knew what they were doing. So whenever I came out there, it was a little intimidating, because I didn’t have the same kind of experience that way. I knew how to teach, but I needed to be able to make an impact and have the coach’s takeaway be that having me there was worthwhile. 

The drill formats were a live document for me. I kept adding new formats as I started to understand them and started to mess around with them and use them for different purposes. But it really starts with an isolation. That’s the very first thing. Which drill formats can I use to create an isolation? We used to use the continuous butterfly drill format a lot for edge control and all the skating components, as a warmup of sorts. You’d start with the kids going from basically top of the circle to top of the circle, down the middle of the ice, and executing something. It could be the inside edge with a puck. Then they’d make the turn, either direction at the top of the circles, and come back down the boards or the outside. Then you’d have another skill, so maybe it would be inside edge on the way down and outside edge on the way back. Then they’d make the turn at the bottom and come back down the middle, so the way the ice is moving looks like a butterfly. There might be some spacing problems because kids aren’t moving at the same speed, so there’s some trying to navigate out of the way. Once you understood the group or the group undersood you, you could pivot. As they’re going, you could be just shouting the next thing. You could let them go for two or three reps doing outside edges, long strides, some crossover or overspeed work, and then switch to going backward. You could just be standing there telling them what to do. You could add pucks, you could add passing; there are tons of things you can do. I used to love that format, because again I felt like it had a lot of variability. I could do different things with it. I could slow it down. I could speed it up. I could isolate. I could teach from it. 

The end zone line, for us, was a straight power skating format. Depending on how many kids they had on the ice, they would try to have groups of four or five lines, and four or five kids in a line, so 20 kids total. If you had more kids, you had to add more lines. Now you’ve got six or seven lines across the goal line and you’re just progressing straight down the ice doing certain isolated movements. I remember watching power skating situations where they would stay in that line format the whole time. It was literally a whole hour of just going down the ice doing one thing, getting some corrections, and coming back down the ice doing another. Their entire ice sheet would be worked off of those lines. It was very controlled. You could see everything going on. You could move the best kids to the front of the line. It really was a simple format that was good for isolations, whether it was starting kids in the corner and using the icing line and then maybe the blue line in their end. You have two groups. One’s in one end and one corner, one’s in the other end and the opposite corner. They go across the goal line, up the boards, back across the blue line, and back in line, working in a square. You could also do all the lines. They go up across the goal line, cross the ringette line. We have the ringette line in a lot of Canadian rinks, so it’s a good line to be able to use for teaching blue line, red line, blue line, ringette line, icing line. I’ve also used the dot lines both across the ice and down the ice, but those are good isolation formats where you can run a lot of kids through in a short period of time and you can isolate whatever skill set you want to work on. 

Then you have pair skills. I liked to use pairs to start getting the work-to-rest ratio going. Sometimes you have a group of 20 kids on the ice, 10 in one line, 10 in the other. By the time it accordions around the rink, the kids are standing in line a whole lot. Even though you can get a lot of kids moving, there’s still a lot of time in between as they wait for that centipede to come back to the end. So I have found using pairs is a better way to create high reps; I go, you wait, then you go, I wait, and we’re doing different things, which could also add a bit more skill blending. 

I used to do a lot of catch-and-turn stuff where there were some techniques I really wanted to work on the turn. I would do it off the pass. I could also do it through puck protection setup. Pairs were a really good format, and I could use multiple skills in a sequence. I could have partners go, and I could tell them, “You’re going to do three skills. You’re going to start off with one skill. When I blow the whistle, you move to the next skill. When I blow the whistle, you move to the next skill, and then you switch roles.” If I had multiple things I wanted to work on that were components of what we were doing that day, I knew I could go to this pair and knock them all off in a very short period of time with a high rep rate. I could see which the weakest one was and then isolate that, if I wanted to, and put it into a line or an end zone line or something. By isolating it, I could make sure that we did the extra work on it and then move on to the next thing. That’s what I mean about the corrective value of it. You could use a drill format just to evaluate where the skill is at before you pull it back into isolation to work on it, build it back up again, and you plug it back into the overall structure of what you’re working on. If you had like a small group, this would be like the role rotations we went over.

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